BASF celebrates 400M catalytic converters
The company looks back at its contribution to cleaner air with a pioneer invention.
BY ANNA SPIEWAK
BASF has celebrated a major milestone recently at its Huntsville, Alabama site—the production of its 400 millionth automotive catalytic converter. And that’s one significant breath of “fresh air”.
The German chemical company owns this most important pollution abatement device invention, which it acquired from Engelhard Corp.
“It was considered one of the top 10 innovations human kind has developed,” explained Dirk Demuth, Senior Vice President, Mobile Emissions Catalysts, BASF.
A catalytic converter is the part in your car that keeps harmful exhaust gases from going into the air and is currently present in close to a billion cars on the roads and most likely taken for granted by drivers today. Nevertheless, this device has eliminated more than 95 percent of harmful emissions from gasoline-engine exhausts.
The “400” celebration took place at BASF’s largest catalyst production site in North America, which employs more than 650 employees. The company, known for its strong sustainability practices, most recently expanded that site to enable continued creation of emission-control technologies for cleaner air.
How it all started
To understand the important contribution of catalytic converters, often known as “cats”, one has to back track in time pre-1970’s—when air pollution was unsupervised, and commercialization superseded clean air concerns.
“If you look at pictures of Los Angeles from the 1970s, you see a lot of smog. If you now look at pictures of India or China, you see the same,” Demuth added.
Car engines run on gasoline or diesel, which are made from petroleum. Air pollution is a byproduct of the fuel being combusted in the engine. The pollutants include a poisonous gas—carbon monoxide, as well as partially combusted fuel molecules and nitrogen oxides—all of which combine to form smog. That’s where the catalytic converter comes in—it completes the combustion of the carbon monoxide and partially burned fuel to form the relatively benign carbon dioxide and water. At the same time, the nitrogen oxides change back into water and harmless nitrogen gas. Nitrogen gas makes up about 80 percent of the air we breathe.
Catalytic converters to the rescue
As the Clean Air Act was enacted and amended in 1970 due to significant smog issues in Los Angeles, three years later the Environmental Protection Agency released a report outlining how lead harmed people’s health, which began the slow process of removing lead from gasoline. 1973 was also the year first BASF catalysts were produced and their concept was proven with a road test on a Ford Torino station wagon.
The U.S. automakers’ transition to installing catalytic converters in vehicles in response to increasingly strict pollution laws coincided with the gradual elimination of leaded fuel in the country, known for its toxicity in the environment. As a result, catalytic converters and lead gas don’t mix. Cars with catalytic converters are designed to run solely on unleaded fuel.
But what does a catalytic converter look like? It is a canister, a large metal box, bolted to the underside of your car that has two pipes coming out of it. One of them is connected to the engine and brings in hot, polluted exhaust gases from the engine’s cylinders (where the fuel burns and produces power). The other pipe is connected to the tailpipe (exhaust). “These harmful components are due to the combustion process in the engine, and only to a small degree due to the impurities in gas,” said Demuth.
As the harmful gases from the engine blow over the catalyst, chemical reactions take place on its surface, breaking apart the pollutants and converting them into gases that are safe enough to blow harmlessly out into the air.
Today, more than one billion tons of pollutants have been eliminated since the development of the catalytic converter in 1973, according to BASF. The EPA estimates that the introduction of “cats,” and other improvements in air quality saved more than 100,000 lives, and led to a 40 percent reduction of carbon monoxide emitted by cars, trucks and motorcycles.
In addition to the catalytic converter milestone, the Huntsville facility also commemorated another landmark—in sustainability—by notably reducing production waste and achieving the Virtually Zero Waste Facility Certification. To qualify for this manufacturing achievement, facilities must meet several criteria, including full transparency about the amount of waste diverted from landfills and sent for incineration with energy recovery.
The three-tier BASF celebration—catalytic converter, facility expansion and Zero Waste certification—makes the future look bright in terms of environmental friendliness for the chemical company.
“For BASF, it’s a perfect thing. We create chemistry for a sustainable future, so this perfectly aligns with our mission statement,” Demuth concluded. “Secondly, it’s an attractive business, and you can leave a positive footprint on the planet by the job you did.”